Shab-e Yalda (“Yalda night” Persian: شب یلدا) or Shab-e Chelleh (“night of forty”, Persian: شب چله) is an Iranian festival celebrated on the “longest and darkest night of the year,” that is, in the night of the Northern Hemisphere‘s winter solstice. Calendrically, this corresponds to the night of December 20/21 (±1) in the Gregorian calendar, and to the night between the last day of the ninth month (Azar) and the first day of the tenth month (Dey) of the Iranian civil calendar.
The longest and darkest night of the year is a time when friends and family gather together to eat, drink and read poetry (especially Hafez) until well after midnight. Fruits and nuts are eaten and pomegranates and watermelons are particularly significant. The red color in these fruits symbolizes the crimson hues of dawn and glow of life. The poems of Divan-e Hafez, which can be found in the bookcases of most Iranian families, are intermingled with peoples’ life and are read or recited during various occasions like this festival and at Nowruz.
Customs and traditions
In Zoroastrian tradition the longest and darkest night of the year was a particularly inauspicious day, and the practices of what is now known as “Shab-e Chelleh/Yalda” were originally customs intended to protect people from evil during that long night, at which time the evil forces of Ahriman were imagined to be at their peak. People were advised to stay awake most of the night, lest misfortune should befall them, and people would then gather in the safety of groups of friends and relatives, share the last remaining fruits from the summer, and find ways to pass the long night together in good company.The next day (i.e. the first day of Dae month) was then a day of celebration, and (at least in the 10th century, as recorded by Al-Biruni), the festival of the first day of Dae month was known as Ḵorram-ruz (joyful day) or Navad-ruz (ninety days [left to Nowruz]). Although the religious significance of the long dark night have been lost, the old traditions of staying up late in the company of friends and family have been retained in Iranian culture to the present day.
Activities common to the festival include staying up past midnight, conversation, drinking, reading poems out loud, telling stories and jokes, and for some dancing. Prior to invention and prevalence of electricity, decorating and lighting the house and yard with candles was also part of the tradition, but few have continued this tradition. Another tradition is giving dried fruits and nuts to family and friends, wrapped in tulle and tied with ribbon (similar to wedding and shower “party favors”). Prior to ban of alcohol, drinking wine was also part of the celebration. Despite the Islamic alcohol ban in Iran, many continue to include home-made and contraband alcoholic drinks in their celebrations.